The shut-down raises interesting questions about newspaper and other media websites. Do these news sources have a civic responsibility to allow comments and criticism of their reporting? What kind of editorial supervision should be allowed over what comments are made?
From a commercial point of view, it isn’t automatically clear why a newspaper should allow criticism of their articles on their website. Might this dissuade people from subscribing if there is the perception that the paper’s reporting is subject to lots of criticism and debate? Why give voice to your critics?
On the other hand, online discussion of news articles can create buzz and free advertising for the news source. I just read three articles on the Washington Post website that I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t heard about this controversy on Slashdot.
More importantly, online readers might point out inaccuracies in the article, or supplement the information with other sources and viewpoints. Reader feedback can ensure that the newspaper is being responsible about reporting the most accurate information as possible. These new inputs might lead the reporter to examine other areas related to the article.
The reality is that it takes careful thought and design to create online spaces for your readers to give feedback on your content. Just throwing up a discussion forum or a blog with comments enabled is not enough to ensure a rich discussion between the journalists and your readership. Newspapers will have to devote resources and staff to manage and moderate online discussions to maintain a relatively civil discussion.
The Washington Post editors have clearly realized this, which is why they pulled one of their blogs. Jim Brady, the editor of the Post website, admirably answered a number of questions today about this decision to pull the blog down. This kind of openness and frankness can help disarm any cries of censorship.
In my free time, I moderate a lively discussion board for swing dancers at Yehoodi.com. Nearly every week I encounter some questionable content, whether its profanity, links to porn sites or flamewars. While we have pretty clear guidelines and a very supportive online community, every situation is slightly different and requires all the diplomacy and judiciousness that I can muster. Just yesterday I took down a post to the boards on pirate porn that created lots of debate on our site. In the end, I put the post back up, but hopefully with the lines clearly drawn on what was acceptable and not on our site.
There are certainly tools and technologies that can help filter and manage online discussions, such as the user moderation system of Slashdot. But in the end, someone has to be on hand to manage the human element in any controversy. These kinds of moderation skills aren’t easily acquired. I’ve seen many discussion forums crash and burn when the owners weren’t willing or able to invest the emotional energy and time it took to ensure a civil online discussion space.
By coincidence, David Pogue’s column in the technology section of the New York Times this week contains a humorous take on “How to Be a Curmudgeon on the Internet”. I like this line about trolling:
Trolling is an art. Trolling works just fine for an audience of one (say, a journalist), but of course the real fun is trolling on public bulletin boards where you can get dozens of people screaming at you simultaneously. Comments on religion, politics or Mac-vs.-Windows are always good bets. The talented troll sits back to enjoy the fireworks with a smirk, and never, ever responds to the responses.
The Post chose to starve the troll by taking their blog offline. That’s a temporary fix. But hopefully they’ll come back with a better solution that doesn’t silence the rest of their readers.